Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Native plant enthusiasts discover “miracle” orchid

By Jim Low
Missouri Department of Conservation

CAPE GIRARDEAU–Like any kind of hunting, hunting for unusual plants involves an element of luck. In the case of Missouri’s newest species, the plant was lucky not to get squashed before it was discovered.

Members of the Missouri Native Plant Society gathered in southeastern Missouri April 18 and 19, visiting sites with rare and unusual plants. Everyone was excited about the variety of sedges – grass-like plants that thrive in moist areas – they were seeing.

Then the group’s attention was captured by a patch of large whorled pogonia – an imperiled orchid – in full bloom. It was as if Paris Hilton showed up on the French Riviera. Before long, the area was mobbed by unusually well behaved botanical paparazzi.

Waiting his turn to photograph the celebri-plants, Justin Thomas noticed a tiny wildflower perched on a hummock nearby. He took the opportunity to snap a few photos of it. Not much later, the field trip ended, and Thomas headed home.

Later that night, he took a close look at his photos and got the surprise of his life. Instead of the common coralroot or cranefly orchid that he expected, he found himself staring at a Southern twayblade orchid (Listera australis). The species had never been documented previously in Missouri.

The time was near midnight when Thomas made this discovery. Nevertheless, he phoned the motel where he knew a few die-hard botanists were staying to continue their field trip. Native Plant Society Board Member Paul McKenzie got the call.

“I was awakened to hear the phone ring by my bedside,” McKenzie recalls. “Justin apologized for calling so late and for not letting other members know about his discovery sooner. I told him that for a report of a new genus and species of orchid to Missouri, I would not care if he called me at 2:30 a.m.!”

The next day, McKenzie and other Native Plant Society members, including Missouri Orchids author Bill Summers, found the Southern twayblade plant again and concurred with Thomas’ identitification. McKenzie still marvels at the discovery.

“Given its tiny size and the fact it was within 20 meters of the one population of Istoria (whorled pogonia), it was a miracle it was not accidentally stepped on Saturday. It is truly amazing that Justin spotted it, especially given that it was missed by several excellent botanists who have a knack for finding rare species.”

McKenzie said an exhaustive search failed to turn up any additional Southern twayblade plants. But he notes that if more than 30 accomplished botanists failed to detect the plant Thomas found in plain sight, others might be hiding nearby. Wild orchids do not bloom every year, making detection even more difficult.

For more information about the Native Plant Society, visit missourinativeplantsociety.org/.

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